Lenin's Private War

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Dispelling the notion, once and for all, that Lenin was a better, more humane and principled man than his Soviet cohort Stalin, Lelsey Chamberlain's LENIN'S PRIVATE WAR--THE VOYAGE OF THE PHILOSOPHY STEAMER AND THE EXILE OF THE INTELLIGENTSIA (Picador) shows that, on the contrary, Lenin was totalitarian through and through, as ruthless, intolerant and bloodthirsty as Stalin himself.

As Chamberlain's well-researched book shows, it was Lenin who unlilaterally masterminded the "Red Terror" Campaign in 1922 in which all "dissenting elements" in Russia were to be either imprisoned, killed and/or deported. It was Lenin who drew up the secret lists of professors, lawyers, writers, doctors, engineers and publishers--basically the Russian intellegentsia--and commanded the Cheka (the secret police) to hunt them down without hesitation or mercy.

Chamberlain focuses on the 160 intellectuals and their families who were herded aboard two chartered German steamboats--known collectively as The Philsophy Steamer--and delivered, against their will, to a port in Germany. "The idea that a single and total view of the world could be universally imposed by a brutal police regime was a new political fate in the modern world," comments Chamberlain.

The story of the Philosophy Steamer did not come to light until 1990, when the fall of the Soviet Union--and the opening of its police files--was followed by groundbreaking research on the part of several Russian historians. Chamberlain, a British journalist who was stationed in Moscow for several years, credits their work as the inspiration for her book (the only one on the subject available in English).

"Lenin's world was anti-metaphysical, anti-individualistic, atheist and materialist. The idealists whom Lenin despised for their 'superstitions' believed by contrast in transcendental values, moral individualism, faith, idealism and, resting on all these things and indistinguishable from them, freedom. The freedom they defended was not a political answer to the coerciveness of the totalitarian state Lenin was inventing; its essence was spiritual. For the Russian idealists freedom was possible because God existed and in the divine order of things human beings had the gift of free will. What the idealists would have wanted to prove to Lenin, had they been invited to a debate, was that moral individualism and belief in God were not irrelevant to the 'real world' but kept it human. Second, they would have wanted to assert that a rational world, however it was defined, was nothing without individual 'inner' freedom."